I usually don't cover murders, but I think that the murder of Irma Balla, a local Fidesz politician in Debrecen, deserves special attention because it shows the total incompetence of the Hungarian police, the prosecutors, and the judge who sentenced Balla's son, Sándor Schönstein, to 12 years in a penitentiary. Schönstein, who is now thirty-three years old, has already spent two years in jail awaiting trial and his subsequent appeal. Last week the appellate judges, a panel of three, found the previous investigation, indictment, and sentencing so outrageously bad that they threw out the entire case. Schönstein can now wait for a new trial (or not) at home.
Without going into all the details, the murder took place in the spring of 2007. Ms. Balla was home alone. Her son, who was attending university in Budapest at the time, was visiting his mother for Easter. On the night of the murder, however, he wasn't at home. He was miles away at a picnic. An iron-clad alibi, but such things sometimes don't make a dent with either the Hungarian detectives or the prosecutors. Irma Balla was hit on the head with a heavy instrument. The police suspected her laptop. With the exception of her cell phone nothing was missing from the house. Her son returned shortly after midnight and found his mother in a pool of blood. He called the police.
Then the inimitable Debrecen police force began to investigate. They investigated and investigated for a whole year but couldn't find the murderer. They did find the cell phone about two miles from the house in a park, but it seems that the phone didn't offer up any clues. After a year the police most likely got restless and somewhat concerned that they weren't coming up with anything. So they decided that Balla's son Sándor, who in some mysterious way was able to be in two different places at the same time, was the guilty one. They immediately incarcerated him.
At this point György Magyar, a well known criminal lawyer, entered the picture. He was often interviewed during the lengthy criminal proceedings. I listened to these interviews with growing fascination. He was clearly frustrated and at one point became a kind of Perry Mason, the TV lawyer who together with a private investigator had to solve cases in order to get his client acquitted. Magyar began his own investigation and found a plausible suspect, Lajos D. Lajos D. had been questioned as a witness because he happened to be working next door at the time of the murder. He had a record already. In fact he was in jail when he was questioned. During his testimony he gave a fairly accurate description of the interior of Balla's house. When asked how he could possibly know all this, he claimed that while working on the house next door he could see all the details from the reflection of an open window. György Magyar and his private detective ascertained that Lajos D. was not telling the truth. No matter the time of the day, one couldn't see much from the window's reflection. When a bit more pressure was put on Lajos D. he confessed to the murder, only to withdraw his confession a day or two later.
In vain did György Magyar ask for further investigation of Lajos D. The police refused to move a finger, and eventually Sándor Schönstein was indicted for the murder of his mother. Never mind that he had an alibi, never mind that they found nothing that would tie him to the murder, the prosecutors went ahead with the case. Finally in 2009 the Hajdú-Bihar County Court sentenced him to twelve years. The prosecution asked for a tougher sentence, György Magyar asked for acquittal. So, the case was moved up to the appellate court in Debrecen.
A few days ago the appellate court in Debrecen took up the case again and had some harsh words to say about the investigation, the prosecution, and the judges of the lower court. The appellate panel pointed out that the case has many unanswered questions and contradictions. As an example, they noted that under the fingernails of the victim there were no traces of Sándor Schönstein's DNA but there were traces of two other persons' DNA. The judges in their opinion didn't mention this physical evidence. Even more important was the fact that a crowbar that belonged to Lajos D. and was suspected by György Magyar of being the murder weapon wasn't checked out in spite of repeated requests. According to the medical examiner a crowbar-like instrument was most likely involved in Irma Balla's murder.
All in all, it looks as if after four years of agony Sándor Schönstein might be cleared because the judges declared the earlier sentencing null and void. But the young man spent two years in jail, his university career is broken, and he had to suffer from the suspicion that he killed his own mother. Who is going to pay for all this? Sándor Schönstein, once his name is cleared, can sue the Hungarian state for compensation. But we know what people wrongly accused get from the generous Hungarian state for their pain and suffering. Very little.
Put it this way, I wouldn't like to be accused of some serious crime in Hungary because the likelihood of being sentenced by an incompetent judge on the basis of incompetent police work and a shoddy job by the prosecution is quite high.
But this ineptitude is not confined to criminal proceedings. In civil cases a similar fate can await the accused. Soon enough I will return to the case of UD Zrt which was clearly guilty of illegally acquiring secret national security information but in the end the victims of UD Zrt's activities ended up being accused. The judge in the case, after reading the 30-page indictment, said that it was so poorly put together that he didn't know what to do with it. He threw it back to the prosecution and ordered them to come up with another one within fifteen days.
Perhaps Hungarians should watch more American TV–for instance, the "Law and Order" and "CSI" mega-franchises. But definitely not "Reno 911," which they might not recognize to be a dim-witted comedy.